The Disappearance of the NBA middle class

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The NBA season 2016-2017 began with almost a certainty: the final was going to be Golden State against Cleveland.

For the third year in a row, the two teams would clash in a final. This never happened in NBA history. Should we worry? Why?

The NBA has always made a key feature of its championship the balance between teams. In order to keep this, every year, the worst team has a higher chance to pick the top prospect of the nation, maybe of the world, in the draft. This makes it possible for anybody to get constantly good players, improve the team, while the top teams lose their best players in time.

Last year the series between OKC and the Spurs and OKC vs Warriors, not to talk about the final, proved vibrant, passionate, with teams coming from behind after losing by 3-1. Now Golden State and Cleveland got to the finals almost without competition, in an NBA that, after Kobe, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Pierce, retired, and Wade entered the downward side of his career, struggles to create great players.

Jordan’s Bulls never won a final 4-0, and never got to a final with a perfect record. The NBA was not necessarily “better”, but the teams had to endure more fatigue to win a title. Will this change in time, or is it the indication of a trend in the game, with more polarisation at the top and at the bottom, with the death of the NBA middle class: good teams, well built, that maybe did not win the title, but gave fun, played a great basketball and entered the hearts of the fans?

Let’s give a look at the reasons why this is happening and the underlying trends:

  1. LeBron James: LeBron is simply the strongest player of all. Since Wilt Chamberlain’s time, no player has ever dominated like him. He’s too tall, too wise, too powerful, too agile. Sometimes he seems to be playing against kids. His basketball skills are impressive too. In a way, he plays his own LeBron-ball game.
  2. Joe Lacob: the venture capitalist who invested in some of Silicon Valleys’ most innovative companies, brought in the Warriors his business culture, organising them in a modern way, often subverting the habits of the game.
  3. Steve Kerr: with the help of Alvin Gentry, a long-time assistant of Mike D’Antoni, Steve Kerr set up Golden State’s game, focusing on the three point shooting and an incredible speed of the game. His Warriors are like nobody else in the NBA, playing different set of schemes and moving across lines unused by the other teams. His philosophy is very much in line with Lacob’s: a constant push towards the new, no scare to try, to seek alternative paths.
  4. Tanking: the teams do not have an incentive to reach a “good” level. There is a push towards either winning the NBA, or tanking in order to get the best next player. Tanking is the strategy to lose as many games as possible to have more chances to get the next best player.
  5. Philosophy: front offices struggle to adapt. The old NBA idea to build teams on centres and inside players does not die. Take Minnesota for instance. Ricky Rubio is a point guard who cannot shoot. Wiggins is a shooting guard with a mediocre 3-pointer. Why does the front office keep building the team like this? Phil Jackson wants the Knicks to play his triangle offence, that gave him 11 titles in Chicago and LA, but: a. he does not have neither MJ nor Kobe, b. times have changed.
  6. Bad bad bad bad bad management: some choices are simply horrible. Dolan’s decision to ship 80% of his team to Denver for a player like Carmelo, a great but individualist player never gone beyond the first level of playoffs, mortgaged the future of the Knicks. The Brooklin Nets giving away the future for old hall of famers, will still be paid for years.
  7. Players: there seems to be a generational gap. The players do not go through the University, because the want to earn quickly money in the NBA. This makes them less capable to read the game and exploit their potential. Players get to the League without a complete set of skills, this makes the game more monotonous and gives an advantage to a team that focuses on good basketball.
  8. Contracts: veterans are expensive, rookies are not. If a team does not keep the promise, the GM prefers to dismantle it to pass to the next. There is an hysteria, and the best GMS are the ones, like Danny Ainge, who can keep their eyes on the future and always focus on their plans. Downward periods can happen, but the teams must always come back.
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